A cave chamber estimated to have been sealed shut for at least 40,000 years was recently discovered in the Rock of Gibraltar, and researchers believe that it could offer new insights into the lives of Homo Neanderthalensis, the Neanderthals who lived in the area.
Vanguard Cave is one of four caves that make up the famous Rock of Gibraltar, with the other three being Bennett’s Cave, Gorham’s Cave and Hyaena Cave. According to UNESCO, the caves provide evidence of Neanderthal life existing in the location for over 100,000 years.
The caves have provided ample evidence of how Neanderthals lived, UNESCO said, including “rare evidence of exploitation of birds and marine animals for food, and use of bird feathers and abstract rock engravings,” all of which have allowed scientists to piece together a clearer image of the Neanderthal species and their cognitive abilities.
While most of what is known today about the species has been garnered from the excavation of Gorham’s Cave, researchers have now turned their attention to the smaller, unexplored Vanguard Cave.
The Gibraltar National Museum announced the discovery of the 40,000-year-old sealed chamber on September 24 via their website, stating that the discovery was a culmination of nine years of work, after a project was started in 2012 to determine if the sea rock’s Vanguard Cave was home to passages or chambers that had been blocked by sediment over time.
And just as the research team had predicted, a large, sealed chamber was discovered at the very back of the cave by the museum’s chief scientist and curator, Clive Finlayson, and his team. A preliminary investigation into the chamber revealed a 13-meter-deep space along the back of the cave, the museum reported.
Initial research into the cavernous space has resulted in several important discoveries, including lynx, hyena and griffon vulture remains. Many scratch marks were visible on the cave walls, left there by an unknown carnivore tens of thousands of years ago.
Speaking to CNN, Finlayson said that none of those were the most impressive discoveries made. Instead, he said, what has most excited the team of researchers was a large marine mollusk found toward the back of the cave.
“The whelk [snail] is at the back of that cave... it’s probably about 20 meters from the beach,” he told CNN. “Somebody took that whelk in there... over 40,000 years ago. So that has already given me a hint that people have been in there, which is not perhaps too surprising. Those people, because of the age, can only be Neanderthals.”
The evidence found inside the cave is consistent with another item found in the same area in 2017. At the time, the researchers were excavating an area close to the cave’s entrance when they came across the milk tooth of a four-year-old Neanderthal child.
However they do not believe that Neanderthals lived in the location where the tooth was found, as other evidence pointed to it having been a hyena den. Instead, Finlayson explained, researchers have concluded that the tooth was probably left there as a result of the hyenas dragging the child into the den, away from the areas inhabited by the Neanderthals.
Although the rest of the excavation is expected to take decades to complete, Finlayson believes that the project is already changing the common portrayal of Neanderthals, helping to move people away from the stereotypical image of unintelligent brutish hunters, he explained in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company.
“We found the bones of these animals that they’ve butchered,” he said. “But we’re finding a lot more... marine shells. They’re eating shellfish from the coast. So it’s changing the whole perspective of the Neanderthal as this sort of inferior, brutish, ape-like creature, and showing that there were very much humans in every respect.”